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Free ride ends as placard-holders pay for metered spaces

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Parking code enforcement officer Becky Rhodes places a warning on a car parked downtown with a disabled driver permit. Under city rules that began July 1, disabled drivers must pay for metered spaces.Craig Burman hit downtown and pulled right into a metered parking spot in front of the Multnomah County courthouse Thursday morning, July 3. On previous courthouse trips, Burman, who works on the courthouse phone system for CenturyLink, needed to circle downtown blocks for as long as 25 minutes before finding a spot. He figured Thursday was his lucky day. But it wasn’t luck at all.

Thursday was the third day of a new city policy that requires holders of disabled driver placards to pay for their metered spots. Previously, the placards allowed drivers to park at any of the city’s parking spaces for as long as they wanted, without having to pay. And the curbside parking spots around the courthouse for years have been dominated by cars displaying disabled permits that stayed in place all day long.

Parking code enforcement officer Becky Rhodes observed first-hand the change the new policy was having on the supply of spaces. On Wednesday, July 2, Rhodes said, she walked the east side of Southwest Fourth Avenue between Main and Salmon streets and saw something she’s never seen before — open curbside parking. And the few cars that were parked on the street did not display disabled placards.

“Normally that block, there might have been one space with no permit,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes and her fellow enforcement officers gave out 24 warnings on Tuesday, July 1, the first day of the new policy, and 100 on Wednesday, July 2.

Mid-morning Thursday, July 3, Rhodes was walking north on Fourth Avenue when she turned the corner to head east and stopped in her tracks as she looked down Taylor.

“Wow, there are all these open spaces,” Rhodes remarked. Indeed, a block that was always full of parked cars at that time of day was nearly deserted. The south side of Taylor Street had six open spaces and only two parked cars. Cars with disabled placards had almost completely disappeared from blocks they traditionally filled.

Rhodes wasn’t alone in her observation. “Other parking officers have been coming in and saying they do not recognize their beat,” said Portland Bureau of Transportation spokeswoman Diane Dulken.

After 30 minutes of patrol, Rhodes had come across only four cars parked with disabled placards. Two displayed parking stubs as the new rules require. One had a wheelchair placard that indicated the driver is wheelchair-bound and thus exempt from the new rules. Only one, a gold Mercedes parked on Fourth Avenue, had a standard disabled placard but no payment stub. Rhodes placed a warning brochure on its windshield.

The new rules require drivers with disabled permits to pay for their metered spaces just like other drivers. But it gives them a bonus — a driver with a placard who has parked at and paid for a one-hour meter will actually get three hours of parking before a ticket can be issued. A one-day Bureau of Transportation survey three years ago counted 1,007 cars with disabled parking permits parked in metered spaces in Portland’s downtown and Lloyd Center area. Thursday there were only a handful.

More revenue for the city?

According to parking experts, metered parking is intended to attract short-term visitors who come downtown to shop or take care of other errands. But the glut of all-day disabled parkers indicated those cars belonged to people who had driven downtown for work, the experts say. By parking on the street, those drivers had been able to avoid paying for the parking they would otherwise purchase in a downtown garage — until now. The glut also has elicited complaints from shop owners who said their customers could not find nearby parking.

A Tribune story last July revealed that a few cities had experimented with one fundamental change — requiring people with disabled permits to pay for their metered parking. Those cities found that once they required drivers with disabled permits to pay at meters, cars displaying placards and staying in spaces all day virtually disappeared.

The new Portland policy, with a number of loopholes for people who can make cases for exceptions, appears to be working as it has in other cities.

Bureau of Transportation workers have been laying the groundwork for the transition, said bureau spokeswoman Diane Dulken. Five weeks ago the bureau began placing brochures explaining the changes on parked cars displaying disabled placards.

“People have been amply notified,” Dulken said.

Tickets with fines — the same fines that all drivers will pay if they don’t plug the meter — have not yet been issued. According to Dulken, each car that displays a disabled placard and is parked without payment will get one warning. The next time that same car is found illegally parked at a meter a ticket will be the result.

Where had all the cars with disabled placards gone? “Either (drivers are) on public transit or in a garage, that’s my guess,” Rhodes said.

Or maybe some of those drivers just threw the placards away because they weren’t supposed to have them in the first place. All it takes to get a disabled placard is a physician’s signature, and most physicians won’t question longtime patients who ask them to sign, according to the experts.

Michael Manville, professor of city planning at Cornell University and co-author of “The Price Doesn’t Matter if You Don’t Have to Pay: Legal Exemption and Market-Priced Parking,” said studies have shown that most placard holders aren’t really disabled.

According to Manville, the state of Michigan had about a half-million residents using disabled placards. Like Portland, Michigan decided only people such as wheelchair users, who could prove they were severely disabled, would be able to use their placards for free parking. That took away the placards’ economic advantage, and only 10,000 residents applied for the placards the following year.

The new rules could net the Bureau of Transportation some additional funding. Those spots that until last week were taken up all day by downtown employees who didn’t have to pay for parking because they had disabled placards will now host drivers who must feed meters every hour or 90 minutes.

The Bureau of Transportation estimates that under the old policy, disabled placards cost the city about $2.4 million a year in lost meter revenue. Dulken says the bureau is expecting that the new policy will yield at least $1 million in new parking meter revenue, and is hoping for more.

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